Bernie Says It

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Obama Administration

Sen. Sanders on CNN:

Asked about military action against ISIS, Sen. Sanders said,

 

It’s a problem for the international community, and you asked me a moment ago why aren’t other countries more deeply involved? I will tell you why. Because they believe that the American taxpayers are going to do it, and American soldiers are ultimately going to do it. And as long as that signal is out there, that’s what’s going to happen. I want the Saudi Arabian government to be actively involved. I want their troops to be on the ground. I don’t want them to believe that we’re going to do it for them. So yes, I think we have to play a very strong and supportive role with the UK, with France, with Canada, with other countries. It can not and should not be the United States alone.

….

It is very easy to criticize the president, but this is an enormously complicated issue. We are here today because of the disastrous blunder of the Bush/Cheney era that got us into the war in Iraq in the first place. Which then developed the can of worms that we are trying to deal with right now.

Do watch the videol

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War on Women Update

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abortion, Women's Issues

Dave Weigel has moved from Slate to Bloomberg News, at at Bloomberg he tells us that the GOP has a bigger and bigger problem with women voters.

The most interesting part, to me, is that in many races around the country Republicans are having to backstep and fudge and are genuinely on the defensive about their stands on “women’s issues,” including abortion. I can remember not many years ago it was conventional wisdom that socially liberal candidates should probably not discuss abortion unless directly asked about it, and then frame all responses in “safe, legal and rare” language.

But now the tables are turned, at least in some parts of the country, and now it’s Republican candidates who have to be careful to not come across as too extremely anti-choice. It seems the overreach of many Republican state legislators, as well as Republicans in Washington, to deny women not just abortion but even reasonable access to birth control has finally triggered the realization that Republicans are dangerous to women.

Again, looking back, I remember the “wink” campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. Dubya was explicitly anti-choice, but he had plenty of women surrogates winking at voters and saying, in effect, he doesn’t mean it. He has to say that to get elected. His mother is pro-choice; his wife is pro-choice. Don’t worry about it. But this truth is that Dubya never saw a women’s rights-restricting bill he wasn’t eager to sign. Fool me once, etc.

In Michigan, for example, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land ran what was supposed to be a “killer” ad pooh-poohing (with silence) the very idea that she was part of the war on women. Voters weren’t fooled; she’s now trailing her Democratic opponent among women voters by 17 points. “Land’s defense of her agenda that cuts access to mammograms, restricts access to contraception, and opposes equal pay for women is summed up in that now infamous 14 seconds of silence,” a Democratic spokesperson said.

I don’t think that Republicans entirely grasp that female genitalia do not a pro-women candidate make. It’s the issues, stupid.

Amanda Marcotte wrote recently that Republicans around the country are running away from “culture war” issues, notably same-sex marriage and access to birth control, and this is causing a rift between the GOP and the religious Right. Marcotte adds,

It’s almost possible to feel a small twinge of pity for the true believers on the religious right. For decades now, the Republican party has depended on them to endorse right wing ideology as a religious belief and to organize voters to get Republicans elected. But now the religious right is finding they only love you if they need you. Of course, religious conservatives shouldn’t fret too much. Just because Republican politicians may not want to engage in the culture war now doesn’t mean they won’t return to pushing the religious right’s agenda against gays and women once safely ensconced in office.

That’s probably true, although if (please) women’s votes cost the GOP the Senate in November, the next wink campaign may be aimed at religious conservatives.

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The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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How Saul Alinsky Became the Bogeyman

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American History, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

The rightie noise machine is pushing a story about a “close relationship” between the dreaded Hillary Clinton and the dreaded Saul Alinsky. Apparently some ancient correspondence between them has been published, proof of the evilness of the Evil Clinton Agenda.

Here’s typical commentary from a rightie blogger:

Alinsky’s chilling rules outlined in Rules for Radicals can be found here. Alinsky’s theories espouse Marxist and socialist ideologies, and this is the man on whom Hillary Clinton wrote her Wellesley College thesis. While writing her thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky’s theory of community organizing, Clinton met with Alinsky to have what she would later refer to as “biennial conversations.”

In her thesis, Hillary attempted to portray Alinsky as a mainstream American icon, writing, “His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them.”

The real Alinsky was neither a Marxist nor a socialist, of course. This is from that radical e-rag, the Christian Science Monitor:

While he has become associated with radical left-wing politics in current political thought, it’s an association that’s largely misplaced, says Mark Santow, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and the author of a forthcoming book on Alinsky.

Professor Santow says Alinsky’s philosophy did not have a political persuasion. Rather, he was “relentlessly non-ideological.” In fact, Santow says parts of Alinsky’s thinking could be found in elements of today’s Democrat and Republican Parties.

“He basically believed that American society was increasingly dominated by large institutions, governments, corporations,” he says. “He thought that ordinary Americans had lost citizenship.”

He adds: “He bears some resemblance to libertarians like William Buckley … but he also bears resemblance to green, new left politics on the other side as well.”

This article also points out that Clinton’s senior thesis was critical of Alinsky in several respects.

Dylan Matthews has a longer article at Vox examining the relationship between Alinsky and Clinton in more detail, and in the context of the times, and of course what is revealed is neither communist nor Marxist but more along the lines of traditional American leftie-progressive populism.

Matthews’s article is titled Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does the right hate him so much? He answers the first question pretty well — ironically noting that something like Alinsky’s methodology was used to organize the Tea Party — but I don’t think he answers the second one.

I doubt very much of your average rightie has more than a vague idea who Saul Alinsky actually was, what he actually proposed, what he actually did. I think the name has come to represent something dark and nasty from deep beneath the subconscious of the rightie hive mind that has little to do with the real Saul Alinsky. I sincerely believe the straw-man Alinsky is the Right’s Emmanuel Goldstein, the possibly fabricated enemy of the state from Orwell’s 1984.

And let me also say that if Alinsky actually had been named William Thompson or John White we wouldn’t be hearing about him now. The name itself, IMO, stirs up nameless fears of a foreign “other” in our midst. For all their celebrated support of the state of Israel, the U.S. right-wing base is an overwhelmingly Christian crew representing a portion of our population long associated with antisemitism. As much as they may support Israel, Jewishness may be something else to them.

Alinsky’s most famous work is a book titled Rules for Radicals. Even though they are radicals themselves, the word radical makes righties nervous. They associate it with the Left, I believe; “right-wing radicalism” is an oxymoron to them. The word radicalism seems to stir up fears of chaos and civil disorder, which they don’t like unless they are causing it. Then it’s okay.

Saul Alinsky, then, makes a first-rate right-wing bogeyman who sends chills up the spines of the faithful even if they couldn’t tell you who he actually was, beyond some guy who did community organizing.

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Compassion vs. Reince Priebus

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abortion, Republican Party

There was a brief flurry of mild amusement on some leftie blogs yesterday, as Chuck Todd appeared briefly to make a point. On Meet the Press he asked GOP frontman Reince Priebus about why Republicans oppose regulations on business except when the business is an abortion clinic.

And Priebus actually said, “The fact of the matter is we believe that any woman that’s faced with unplanned pregnancy deserves compassion, respect, counseling.” Seriously, he said that. It’s on the video.

Todd pressed (!) the point, asking how it could be compassionate to expect women “drive for 2 or 300 miles,” and Priebus changed the subject to taxpayer funding of abortion, which is one of the current phony issues/shiny sparkly things being dangled in front of the base to keep it focused. At this point, Todd reverted to form and failed to point out that taxpayer dollars are not, in fact, being used to fund abortions. As I said, it was a brief flurry.

The larger point is that Republicans have a weird view of “compassion” that matches their weird view of women. And their weird view of human reproduction, for that matter.

Republican Family Life

There’s a bunch of new data showing that a dramatic reduction in unwanted pregnancy — and, thereby, abortion — can be achieved by providing teenage girls and women with free counseling  and the contraception of their choice, also free. This cuts teen abortion rates by 75 percent.

As near as I can tell claims that taxes are funding abortions are based on two things: One, the exchange subsidies will pay for policies that include abortion coverage. To which I say, Oh, please. … The other is that tax money goes to Planned Parenthood, an organization that no doubt prevents more abortions than all the so-called “right to life” culties put together. Seriously, as the Fetus People make family planning services more out of reach for low income women, they should pick up their “baby killer” signs and start picketing each other.

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The Pathological Denial of the Right

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conservatism, Europe

Many, many years ago, back when Ronald Reagan was primarily known as the host of Death Valley Days, I concluded that the essential difference between American liberals and conservatives was this: Liberals identified real-world problems and at least attempted to implement solutions, albeit solutions that didn’t always work. Conservatives tended to be in denial that many real-world problems were happening at all until it bit them on the ass personally, and since they tended to be a privileged lot that didn’t happen much. Racial discrimination was not a problem for them, for example, so (in their minds) it couldn’t possibly have been a real problem for anyone else, either. But if you had packed conservatives into a crowded theater and yelled “Communist!” they’d likely have trampled each other to death as they stampeded to the exits.

Of course, those long-ago days seem like the golden age of rationality compared to what we’ve got going on now.

Gail Collins points out that many of the states being hit by the real-world consequences of global climate change are governed by politicians in denial of global climate change. Collins notes that Louisiana is sinking into the Gulf at an alarming rate, and Gov. Jindal thinks climate change is just a “Trojan horse” full of nefarious liberal ideas that would destroy freedom. However, Jindal has come out against forest fires. Forest fires definitely are bad.

Another article in today’s NY Times begins,

In Louisiana, the most common way to visualize the state’s existential crisis is through the metaphor of football fields. The formulation, repeated in nearly every local newspaper article about the subject, goes like this: Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Where does it go, this vanishing land? It sinks into the sea. The Gulf of Mexico is encroaching northward, while the marshes are deteriorating from within, starved by a lack of river sediment and poisoned by seawater. Since 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has delisted more than 30 place names from Plaquemines Parish alone. English Bay, Bay Jacquin, Cyprien Bay, Skipjack Bay and Bay Crapaud have merged like soap bubbles into a single amorphous body of water. The lowest section of the Mississippi River Delta looks like a maple leaf that has been devoured down to its veins by insects. The sea is rising along the southeast coast of Louisiana faster than it is anywhere else in the world.

I confess, I hadn’t realized it was that bad. And Gov. Jindal’s response is to speak out against forest fires. One wonders (although not much) to what extent the petroleum industry in the Gulf influences his opinions.

Collins continues, “In Alaska, entire towns are beginning to disappear under the rising seas. Roads are buckling as the permafrost starts to melt.” And climate change is “causing the drains in Miami Beach to back up with saltwater, sending the ocean running down the streets.” The politicians in those states deny anything is happening being caused by man or about which anything can be done. And if pushed, they just say they are not scientists. Collins continues,

Florida is absolutely awash in backed-up ocean water and elected officials who are not scientists. Louisiana has a rapidly receding coastline and a governor who’s afraid of the energy industry. Alaska has drowning villages and a political establishment in denial.

Part of the problem is that climate change denial has become teabagger orthodoxy, and any Republican politician who so much as expresses willingness to consider the science is liable to be primaried. That, combined with energy industry money, pretty much guarantees that Republicans won’t admit there is a problem until they are drowning. And then they’ll blame Democrats for a shortage of lifebuoys.

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Politics and Panic

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Obama Administration, Republican Party

Jon Stewart last night:

People are going freaking nuts over one Ebola patient in Texas. Cause for concern, yes, but in first-world conditions it shouldn’t be that hard to keep the infection contained. The CDC says that Ebola is only contagious while an infected person has active symptoms. Where the disease is raging in Africa it has been impossible to quarantine infected people.

It doesn’t help that the CDC’s budget was cut, because Republicans, eroding its ability to deal with things like contagious disease. To be a Republican is to be too dim to connect cause and effect. How many times in the past few years have Republicans gone on a rampage about poor government response to some situation, and then we learn that the agency responsible for the poor response had had its budget cut by Republicans?

Some parts of news media (guess which!) seem to be going out of their way to spread panic. And guess who is being called out for particular blame for one Ebola patient? In the Republican imagination POTUS is something like Professor X in X-men, and he can sit in his Cerebro chamber controlling all things with his mind. Laura Ingraham, at least, seems to think this.

As Stewart points out, we put up with a lot of preventable death in this country without blinking an eye. We can quibble with how much of our out-of-control gun violence rates are preventable, but if we compare U.S. rates of gun deaths to that of other countries it’s obvious that tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. every year who would not have died if they had been somewhere else. Our infant mortality rates have been a disgrace for decades, and Republicans find no end of creative ways to explain this away — nothing to see here, folks, move along. In some cases there’s only so much public policy can do, but earlier this year the CDC released its findings of a study of what it called “preventable deaths,” nothing that rates of these preventable deaths tend to be higher in the southeast states.  Hmmm.

But these deaths are somehow tolerable. One Ebola patient and the country has a meltdown. You don’t need a degree in Freudian analysis to suspect that much of the panic is coming from the Id, from fear of the unknown awful ( and nonwhite) things that  scare us. We’re supposed to tolerate stranger-men with assault rifles in restaurants, but some communities have pushed themselves to the brink of riot at the thought of Guatemalan children being housed in their midst.

And, of course, political operatives are milking this for all its worth, because you know that all over America there are living rooms full of extremely stupid people watching their televisions and saying, yeah, we’re all going to die of Ebola and its Obama’s fault. And maybe those people will go to the polls in November to vote Republican.

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The Kansas Experiment

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Obama Administration

While I’m cranking out some stuff to meet a deadline, do read “This Is What’s the Matter With Kansas: Sam Brownback tried to create a conservative utopia. He created a conservative hell instead.”

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Too Broke to Fix

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big picture stuff

I started to skim the Salon article, “Straight-up propaganda”: Fox News, charlatans, conspiracy theorists and the religious fanatics endangering democracy, thinking it would be the usual rant against the right-wing crazies who keep us from having nice things, but it actually goes deeper than that and is worth reading.

The author, Joseph Heath, argues that the entire U.S. political system has built-in vulnerabilities, and mass media makes these vulnerabilities more easily exploitable by demagogues, and as a result democracy in the U.S. is more, shall we say, challenged than in many other democracies.

The author writes that democracies of any sort must strike a balance between being responsive to public concerns but not being so responsive that public policy is perpetually being jerked around by every passing whim. He points out, for example, that nearly always in functioning democracies the central banking system functions independently of government so that it can make necessary but unpopular decisions without interference.

Thus it is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded.

But this only works up to a point; ultimately politicians elected by the people have the last word on many things. Where issues are complex — and most of ‘em are these days — one may either rely on experts or reach consensus through democratic deliberation. And there’s our problem — democratic deliberation itself is utterly degraded. We can’t even discuss anything anymore. And here is where the U.S. is uniquely vulnerable.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the American political system, for instance, is that the president is never forced to engage in debate with other legislators and is never forced to answer any question he doesn’t want to answer. In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister has to show up in the House of Commons when it is in session and defend the policies of the government. He or she is there treated like any other member of Parliament, and thus jeered, heckled, and challenged by members of the opposition. For this reason, and despite how degraded the spectacle has become over time, “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and scepticism in the political system.”

Weirdly, this fact can protect incompetent legislatures as much as Presidents.

In January 2010, House Republicans took the unusual step of inviting President Obama to address their caucus retreat in Baltimore, after which the president spent over an hour responding to questions directly  from legislators. Two things about this were noteworthy. First, Americans from one end of the country to the other were astonished by the lucidity of the exchanges. What they were used to seeing was the president and the members of Congress exchanging barbs through the media. Seeing the president able to respond to questions directly was a revelation. Second, there was the fact that President Obama completely eviscerated his opponents—to the point where Fox News cut off the live broadcast,  in order to save the Republican Party from further embarrassment. The major reason is that most of the Republican legislators did what they were accustomed to doing, which is use their questions as an opportunity to spout talking points. They didn’t realize that this only works as a media tactic; it doesn’t work in a face-to-face exchange with a political opponent, particularly one who can take as much time as he likes to respond.

Because it went so badly for them, Republicans never invited Obama back. Therein lies the central problem with the American presidential system: this kind of exchange is optional. In most other democracies, this kind of exchange is institutionalized as a requirement. As it stands, the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. This makes the “norm of truth” very difficult to enforce, and in turn encourages the slow descent into truthiness. The point is that irrationalism is not an inevitable consequence of the modern condition; it is in many respects a consequence of the institutions we have chosen.

I confess I’d never thought of this before. The author also suspects that had Ronald Reagan “been forced to enter a ‘parliamentary bear pit’ every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.” His dementia would have become obvious. And the Cult of Reagan that still dominates the Republican Party might never have taken hold.

But then there’s mass media. As much as we love transparency, there is evidence from other countries that just putting everything on television is not necessarily helpful. In many countries the introduction of television cameras to legislative debates has caused politicians to speak in sound bytes for public consumption rather than actually argue. The very fact of mass media technology seems to cause some degradation of deliberation. But mass media in the U.S. is worse than elsewhere.

American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts, making the entirely media universe something of closed loop. When discussing the federal budget, for instance, they will often put together panels consisting entirely of lobbyists and other journalists. It is relatively rare to see an actual economist (with the exception of Paul Krugman, who typically appears in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, not as an economist). This seems to be just a part of the culture of American journalism—public television is nearly as bad as private—and it’s difficult to see what could be done about it.

There are some other more obvious problems. The creation of straight-up propaganda networks like Fox News in America has done enormous damage to the quality of democratic discourse in that country.

Heath goes on to say that the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine did make things worse, but even more than the Fairness Doctrine we need laws that penalize outright lying and misrepresentation. Other countries have such laws.

The European Parliament, for instance, has passed a resolution specifying that “news broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration.” In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code requires that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” Canada has a rule (enforced by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission) that simply prohibits the intentional, repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” This type of constraint is more easily defended than the Fairness Doctrine, since it is closer in spirit to the laws governing  false advertising. And yet the Canadian rule is strong enough to have so far prevented Fox News from expanding into that market.

Here, even a state law that prohibited outright lying in campaign commercials was struck down as being a violation of free speech rights. This is insane. Commercials can’t make false claims about toothpaste, but they can about candidates for office, because freedom?

Heath also thinks that a fairly simple way to stop the voter suppression games is to make voting mandatory. That had never occurred to me, but maybe it’s worth considering. Unfortunately …

Criticizing the American political system has, unfortunately, become something of a mug’s  game, simply because the deficiencies are all mutually reinforcing, and so no matter how much sense it would make to change one thing or another, nothing is going to get fixed.

The status quo depends on nothing getting fixed, actually. So the status quo will see to it nothing gets fixed. Krugman’s column today says, “Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.” And the system is rigged so they can’t find out.

I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.

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We’re Crazy Enough Already, Ross, Thanks

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Obama Administration

Channeling his inner David Brooks, Ross Douthat has cranked out a column notably clueless even by David Brooks standards. Douthat has decided we have a deficit of whackjob religious cults.

LIKE most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on.

Douthat notes that today’s “cult” leaders are a far more innocuous crew — instead of David Koresh, we get Joel Olsteen — and he thinks this is a bad thing.

The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

The Branch Davidians were many things, but I never thought of them as creative. Anyway, Douthat quotes a couple of guys, one of which says that a wild religious fringe is a sign of a healthy center, and “a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack ‘a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry’ as well.” Another guy says that “fewer crazy cults” are a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”

If it’s creativity Douthat is worried about, he should rest assured there’s plenty of it out there, and most of it is in his party. Consider such creative folks as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Laura Ingraham, who on Friday told her radio audience that President Obama plans to expose our troops to Ebola to make up for colonialism. David Koresh was a slacker compared to such as these.

You don’t hear a lot about people being abducted by aliens any more, either, but when you’ve got a President exposing troops to ebola and crazed jihadi prayer mats / soccer jerseys mysteriously turning up in Texas, who needs UFOs?

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